Agencies looking to buy mail-cleaning devices

The U.S. Postal Service and a handful of other federal agencies are negotiating to buy machines that would kill micro-organisms such as mail-borne anthrax by irradiating envelopes and packages, according to government and industry sources. The Postal Service is testing the effectiveness of irradiation, and has sent samples of mail to be irradiated to a private facility, said spokesman Gerry Kreienkamp. He said the agency wants to deploy the technology "as quickly as possible" at key mail processing facilities, but declined to say how many facilities might receive the machines. Rod Wilson, vice president of sales and marketing for BioSterile Technology, a Fort Wayne, Ind., manufacturer of irradiation equipment, says his company is "in negotiations" with the Postal Service, the Defense Department, the Secret Service and the Los Alamos National Laboratory to sell its device. Wilson met with senators Thursday to brief them about the company's products. Jim Mackin, a spokesman for the Secret Service, wouldn't say whether the agency is negotiating to buy irradiation equipment, but he said the Secret Service stays in constant contact with equipment manufacturers. The Secret Service screens and processes its mail, as well as mail destined for the White House, at a remote site, Mackin said. The Food and Drug Administration, which approves the use of irradiation to decontaminate medical devices and some foods, is "looking into what the efficacy of different kinds of irradiation would be against anthrax," according to Brad Stone, an agency spokesman. Irradiation devices emit highly energized beams of atomic particles, often in the form of x-rays and gamma rays, to disrupt the chemical structure of an organism, killing its cells. Microwaves, ozone in liquid or gas form, and ultraviolet light will also kill micro-organisms, but ultraviolet light is too weak to penetrate the surface of an envelope or package. Wilson said mail could be decontaminated by running it beneath an electron beam on a conveyor belt for 30 to 90 seconds, depending on the amount of mail being treated. BioSterile's device sells for $650,000, Wilson said, adding that while he didn't know how many machines a given agency might deploy, one would not be enough to treat all mail at a typical Postal Service center. Wilson said it would take four to eight months under BioSterile's current production schedule to have a device ready for deployment, but added that the company is going into a mass production mode. Kreienkamp said the Postal Service is evaluating X-ray and gamma ray technologies. The agency would write a new contract to buy the equipment, he said, adding that some funding would be available from a $200 million emergency spending package approved by the Postal Service Board of Governors. It's doubtful any existing government contractors sell the technology needed to decontaminate the mail. Irradiation is commonly used to sanitize medical products, but according to Robert McKenna, director of materiel management for the Veterans Affairs Department, government medical facilities don't currently use gamma rays for decontamination. Rather, McKenna said, equipment is cleaned with high-pressure steam or chemicals, which would likely damage mail. Another option might be to screen mail for the presence of biological agents. Frank Thibodeau, business development manger for biological detection device manufacturer Bruker Daltonics of Billerica, Mass., says both civilian and defense agencies have contacted the company in the past few weeks to learn about options for screening mail. Thibodeau said the company's biological and chemical detection devices could sense the presence of anthrax or other agents on the surface of or inside mail. The company sells its biological detector for $218,000 on the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Schedule, a set of pre-negotiated contracts awarded to multiple companies that any agency can use to make quick purchases of goods and services. However, Bruker is currently selling its devices at full capacity on a contract with the Defense Department, Thibodeau said, so it's unlikely the company could deliver its detectors to other agencies immediately. The chemical detectors aren't sold through the schedules, Thibodeau said. Officials from the Defense Department and the Los Alamos National Laboratory did not respond to requests for comments.